Our star movie columnist Kathy Shaidle is off this week, so your humble host has to fill in. Among the casualties of this lost summer is the summer blockbuster: for the first time since the mid-seventies, when Steven Spielberg and George Lucas seized the season for sharks and space aliens, the season has passed blockbuster-free. On the other hand, summer-in-the-city-wise, we seem back to the Seventies of Death Wish, of looting and random violence, and no law and order to be found. It isn't really a return to Death Wish New York, of course: the wholesale demographic transformation of American cities means the Paul Kersey types are long fled to red states, and the old ethnic solidarities are long gone; yell "Yo, Vinny!" in any ancient Italian-American neighborhood and get a thousand baffled Somalis and Uzbeks staring back at you.
Still, I find myself in the mood for a film of urban summer, in which you can feel the temperature rising, and the tensions too. In Billy Wilder's Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe beats the New York heat by keeping her underwear in the freezer. In Spike Lee's 1999 film Summer of Sam, despite Mira Sorvino & Co taking turns ducking into a restaurant freezer, there's no way to beat the heat, and everyone's underwear is steaming: Summer of Sam is heavy on summer, and light on Sam - the Son of Sam, that is, the big serial killer of the city's 1977 record heat wave. By the end of Lee's long hot movie about that long hot summer, as the sun fries the brains and frazzles the nerves, the Son of Sam's craziness is merely a matter of degree.
It was all gone by the time the director made his picture. For better or worse, you couldn't make a film like this about Rudy Giuliani's New York, by comparison a bland Disneyfied boutique with a lower crime rate than London and most other British cities. Lee's is an elegy to a mythic New York, and, at the end, he shovels all the clich├ęs on top of each other: "There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them" - the lines come from the old Fifties cop show; they're delivered here by Jimmy Breslin, playing himself as he did for decades, the king of the old rubber-truncheon city-beat columnists; underneath, Sinatra's singing about the city that doesn't sleep; the credits are splashed across the screen as headlines from The New York Post and The Daily News.
This being Spike Lee, it isn't one of the eight million stories, but a good handful of them, spliced together against the backdrop of David ("Son of Sam") Berkowitz's killing spree. There's no pretence at range: it's located precisely among the black director's second favorite demographic, bluecollar Italian-Americans who strut like they're kings of the hill, top of the heap, apparently oblivious to the "Dead End" sign that dominates their Bronx cul-de-sac. It's a raw tabloid film about raw tabloid people, with the kind of literal signposting most directors recoil from. When Lee's protagonists, Vinny and Dionna, are splitting up, they do so (in best "Our Tune" tradition) to Thelma Houston's disco whimper "Don't Leave Me This Way". But literalness sometimes works: Vinny is like most Spike Lee characters - little more than a hazy outline with a couple of traits, in this case a pint-sized Travolta who services very energetically both the clients and his boss at the hair salon. But, as played by John Leguizamo, he has a visceral force that leaps from the screen.
In the course of one of his extramarital backseat humpings, Vinny believes he's been seen by the killer. He takes this as a warning from God to cut back on the womazising, no easy task. Vinny is afflicted by the old madonna-whore complex. He's into oral, anal, every sort of sex every which way from any gal who'll take it. But he respects his wife too much to let her go in for this kind of thing, so instead he treats her like a lady and just gives her a quick, unsatisfying poke in the missionary position every couple of months. Dionna, a waitress, dimly comprehends some of this, and so her beauty has an ineffable sadness about it. Like Leguizamo, Mira Sorvino lifts the role into life, in a beautifully detailed performance complete with traffic-cop arm choreography that I thought crudely obvious at the time but now has me pining with nostalgia for the vanished outer boroughs of a lost New York.
Because the Son of Sam's victims are brunettes, the city's big-haired disco dames are flocking to the hair salons to bleach their tresses. When Dionna's protective menfolk insist she and Vinny can only go out clubbing if she wears a blonde wig, it adds a fantasy element to their relationship that eventually leads them to Plato's Retreat, the gloomy coke'n'swingers club where, with a full nose of happy powder, Dionna lets go a little too much for Vinny's tastes. That's the film in a nutshell: it's not about the Son of Sam, it's what happens to a twitching, sweating fevered city when the unleashed fantasies of a serial killer accelerate the barely submerged fantasies of everyone else.
In some ways, Summer of Sam has the arc of a musical, a foul-mouthed hybrid of On the Town and West Side Story, where, instead of Sharks versus Jets, it comes down to disco versus punk. Spike Lee, not for the first time, has hit on a brilliant idea and failed to do it justice. But so what? He still deserves credit for getting to it, and for assembling a superb cast - Bebe Neuwirth as the steely-hard salon madam, Patti LuPone as Ritchie's blousy mom. Two decades back, Spike Lee was shooting on the run, one film a year, with too much going on and the unfocused energy of a rampaging bull. But, if we have to have flawed masterpieces from celebrity auteurs, this one is pretty good - a luxuriant soak in the manners and mores of a sweltering summer that came close to boiling over.
The Mark Steyn Club is now in its fourth season. As we always say, membership in the Club isn't for everybody, but it does support all our content, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it's also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle. More details here.
Oh, and if you're really sick of the lockdown and looting and general lethargy of life, we have a fabulous cruise coming up next year, which is just the best way to bust out of this thing.